The Road to LGBT Change in the Catholic Church Won’t Be a Straight One

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ remarks about lesbian and gay people are bound to bring about change in the church.  Not everyone will agree with that statement.   Yet, the road to change in the church on LGBT issues may not be a straight one, but who said that straight is always better? Let me explain.

As happened after the pope’s “Who am I to judge?” remark of mid-summer, some commentators have pointed out again after his America interview that nothing has really changed in church teaching because of the pope’s statements.  Pope Francis’ comments do not offer any moral approval of same-sex relationships or marriage equality.   Those who understand church teaching about gay and lesbian people know that official documents have always called for respect and understanding of people with a same-sex orientation, so some have felt that the pope added nothing new and that nothing has changed.

But, as we know from experience, if anyone needed to hear Pope Francis’ message about obsession it is the Catholic bishops in the U.S.   Their campaign against marriage equality over the last decade has quite often overstepped its boundaries and given the appearance of obsession.  Although they often gave lip service to the teaching about respect and understanding, such a message always seemed incredibly shallow given the vitriol they used to condemn same-sex relationships and marriage.  No one believed what the bishops were saying about respect and understanding since their rhetoric provided a stronger message in the opposite direction.

Here’s a case in point.  On the same day that Pope Francis’ interview became public. Catholic News Service ran a story about Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese of Military Services, issuing guidelines about same-sex couples.  The news story stated:

“Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services has issued guidelines on ministering to same-sex couples for military chaplains and other priests and deacons who serve Catholics in the military, U.S. Foreign Service personnel and those at Veterans Affairs facilities. The document, ‘Renewed Fidelity in Favor of Evangelization,’ highlights the need to ‘reiterate with clarity the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality’ but also points out that, as St. Paul reminds believers, ‘it must never be forgotten that the human condition occasions many failings.’ “

Clarity?  Does the archbishop think that there is anyone who doesn’t know of the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to same-sex relationships?  And why is homosexuality considered part of human “failings.”  When bishops speak like this, they show they do not understand or respect LGBT people regardless of how much they say they do.

Pope Francis’ remarks ring truer, though.  Nothing has shown that he will support full marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples.  (Though he is on the record for supporting civil unions–a compromise that, while not ideal, is a giant step forward, and one that the U.S. bishops have not agreed to yet. )  But his comments do seem to indicate respect and understanding.  He may not be where progressive Catholics might like him, but he is further down the road than his predecessors, and miles ahead of the U.S. bishops.  It’s no wonder that Sister Margaret Farley, a renowned theologian of sexual ethics, has said that she feels this pope can be reached on LGBT issues.

John Becker, in The Huffington Post, stated that Pope Francis’ remarks seem too much like window-dressing:

“LGBT Catholics, their non-LGBT allies, and the greater LGBT community should really stop breaking out the champagne and balloons for this pope every time he says a few nice-sounding words about gays and lesbians. Believe me, I’m as encouraged by his change in tone as the next person, but after centuries of persecution, the Catholic Church owes its LGBT members a whole lot more than just an acknowledgement of their existence.”

While I agree that LGBT people deserve a lot more, I disagree that these remarks are not a reason to celebrate.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn’t acknowledge that true change comes from the bottom, not the top.  Pope Francis’ remarks are not the true change.  The true change is that Catholics in the pews and Catholics at the “middle management” level (pastors, principals, college administrators, etc.) have already been living out real respect and understanding for LGBT people and have been working towards their full equality, including marriage.

Yes, Catholics should break out the champagne and balloons because a pope is finally showing he is following their lead, not the other way around.

Still for other Catholics, who may have been fearful of church sanction if they expressed any support for LGBT people, the pope’s statements are an example for them to follow.  I can’t say for sure that we will see any change in church teaching on LGBT matters any time soon, but I do predict that we will see an outpouring of support for LGBT people from many more Catholics who up until now have been reluctant to do so.

In The Washington Post “On Faith” blog, Elizabeth Tenety lists eight ways that Pope  Francis is changing the church, including bringing people back, including young people.  With more and more progressive Catholics come back to the fold, after having been alienated for so many decades, the Catholic Church will witness a demographic change.  They, too, will add to the pro-LGBT movement in the church.  Pope Francis is appealing to the people who will make the church more LGBT-friendly.

When demographics and pastoral practice start to change, doctrinal change will eventually have to catch up.  Change in the church happens first in practice and then in theory, not the other way around.  Pope Francis’ statements are going to open a floodgate of many acts of acceptance and dialogue on LGBT issues, and this dialogue will eventually pave the way for doctrinal change.

Furthermore, the humility of the pope, which was so evident in the interview, speaks volumes about the possibility that he will be open to a more dialogical church than we have seen in years.  And that can have effects on matters way beyond LGBT issues, too.

So, the path may not be straight, it may not be direct, but it will eventually lead to a church of justice and equality for all.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

16 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    Simply to note for the record: John Becker (quoted above) was fired from his position as the music director of a Catholic parish in Wisconsin, when the bishop of the diocese learned that he was legally married to his husband Michael. If he seems bitter and negative about the looming prospect of change in the Church, he has a very compelling reason to be doubtful and angry, given the way he has been treated by the Church.

  2. pjnugent
    pjnugent says:

    Thanks, Frank, for this insightful piece. It’s probably also worth noting Pope Francis’ comments in the interview on “discernment” that is fundamental to his spirituality. We should expect that dogmatic change will take time, as the discernment process does its work. For that reason we must discipline ourselves not to insist on immediate official change, but to continue to work and hope and pray.

  3. Lydia Lombardo
    Lydia Lombardo says:

    Wonderfully clear analysis. Helpful and hopeful, The Pope is following the lead of the people. What could be more wonderful than that. We have always known that the morays of the people change first, eventually forcing institutions to change. We’ve seen it in our lifetimes but the church has particularly been slow in acknowledging that people’s sexual practices and preferences have changed. That they are still harping on contraceptives has got to be the biggest denial. Lastly, the church needs to stay out of our bedrooms and our politics. We are no longer sheep who follow everything that comes down from the Vatican. The pope’s “infallibility” has been so misunderstood and misused. It’s time that also becomes clear. As Pope Francis said, our personal consciences are above any man-made doctrine.

  4. Jose Luis Sanchez
    Jose Luis Sanchez says:

    Very lucidly stated, especially the clarity on who is leading the bottom-up change and who is trying to mend the broken Catholic “field hospital tent.” Thank you – José Luis Sánchez

  5. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    Everything needed for equality and human dignity is in Catholic doctrine. Pope Francis is simply stating what has been there all along; Catholics are called to love one another. We are not to judge. The doctrine asserts the dignity of life and the dignity of each person. As we know, life is not just biology. Sanctity of life means that we are called to support one another in loving acceptance from conception to death. And thatmmeans ALL people: the mother AND the fetus, the child AND his/her parents, the old person, the prisoner, the widow, the teenager, the drug user, the alcoholic, the homeless, our neighbors, strangers. EVERYONE. This is a big, complex group, this Body of Christ that encompasses humanity. To guide us we do have the church doctrine. AND we have the Holy Spirit working within all of us, and we have our individual consciences. Lifelong conscience formation is integral to the Catholic church and is part of the dogma. In the end, it is each Catholic who must choose how he/she acts. We have free will. Our “gut” (Holy Spirit) lets us know, if we are on the prayerful path of conscience formation, what is the most loving act. And in looking back on our lives, we can pinpoint the times that we deviated from doing the most loving act. I know for a fact that many people who rejected, shunned, or spoke ill of my aunt for getting a divorce in the 60’s regret their behavior in 2013. I know friends who regret their decision to lecture a friend who had an abortion rather than to hold her in loving embrace. I know plenty of mothers who are torn by their decisions not to attend the wedding of a relative when it was a marriage “outside of the church,” etc. Most of the Catholic faithful have been open to the Holy Spirit in the world. We know that our LGBT brothers and sisters deserve our full support and inclusion in all sacraments, including matrimony. The Pope is moving in the direction of a true spiritual and religious leader. He is speaking to each of us, encouraging us to follow our consciences and to do “the most loving act.” The judgment can be left to God. Pope Francis is actually looking out for our souls by encouraging us to do as Jesus demanded: Love our brothers and sisters as ourselves, and do unto them what we would have for ourselves–all without judgment. That is our task. It is holy to do this. Pope Francis is simply reminding us what it means to be Catholic. We must prayerfully study the doctrine and what it means in terms of what we do. But the bottom line in our Catholic faith is conscience. And most Catholics cannot discriminate against LGBT people as a matter of conscience. That is why we fight for justice. We do this not in spite of being Catholic, but because we are Catholic.

  6. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Of course he has not changed formal teaching in the slightest, but there can be no doubt at all that he is dramatically changing pastoral practice (even if some bishops are slow to get the message). More importantly, by creating space for more open and frank discussion, including a friendlier atmosphere in which LGBT can speak about their own lives and journeys in faith, he is creating the conditions for change, which will surely come.

    One fascinating aside on just how radically things are already changing, is displayed in a report in last week’s ,Tablet, with the headline “Marriage Moves Up Cardinals’ Agenda”, beginning with “The next gathering of the Synod of Bishops will discuss thorny issues related to marriage” Not long ago, that would have implied yet another attack on marriage equality, but no. The report continues by listing these “thorny issues” problems – “including problems around the anullment process, the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving the sacraments, and the growing problem of unmarried cohabitation.

    Not a word in there about how “gay marriage” is such a threat to marriage. Sanity, at last.

  7. Phillip Clark
    Phillip Clark says:

    This analysis was astute and comprehensive in every way, and conveys the same optimistic sentiments of hope I have held since Pope Francis’ election. Those who critique the pope’s dramatic gestures as mere “window-dressing” are missing the big picture. A well known and true adage states that the Catholic Church “thinks in centuries.” At least this can be said of members of the institutional church’s hierarchy. As Mr. DeBernardo so eloquently clarified, a change in tone is only the beginning of real, substantive reforms in church teaching. The momentum for such developments lies with all of us as equal members of the People of God who have been baptized into Christ’s prophetic, royal, and priestly mission of salvific transformation. While the Holy Father’s comments are an extremely welcome positive shift in attitude and approach, in terms of how LGBT persons are treated by the institutional church, the hard work of actually correcting the errors conveyed in official pronouncements of church teaching is left up to each one us, in whatever station of life we may find ourselves.

    However, the power that a change in tone and attitude has cannot be underestimated. Changes in approach serve as catalysts for genuine theological evolutions of substance. But it must be remembered, that both dynamics, the institutional hierarchy of the church, as well as the Catholic laity, must both contribute equally, and wholeheartedly, in order for a true renewed and authentically pastoral understanding of LGBT persons to be realized within the Catholic Church.

  8. Vern Smith
    Vern Smith says:

    Your comments are right on target, Frank. As a progressive, I totally get it when I hear so many commentators frustrated and wanting change to happen more quickly. So many are understandably suspicious of Pope Francis’ comments, saying that nothing has really changed, and what he has put forth are mere words . . . but that actions are what are really needed. I get it, I get it . . . injustice and prejudice necessitate impatience.

    Meanwhile, let me offer this gentle counterpoint to my progressive brothers and sisters, given my personal experience with my Mom, who is in her eighties. She was a child of the Great Depression, raised in a time of fear and the need to insure life’s basic necessities and security . . . and in a pre-Vatican II era in which your salvation rested in doing what the Church said you should do to attain entrance into heaven. Currently in my middle ages, I’ve finally learned not to judge her and her life’s experiences. She is who she is, and believes many things that she was taught by the Church of her youth. After all, she only genuinely wants to be one with God. Surely, it is wrong for me to judge her spirituality.

    Imagine the struggle for her as she learned that her youngest two sons were gay. Thank God, she never disowned us or could deny her love for us. But for years, I have known that she has quietly struggled over our gay status . . . I know that it has been tremendously difficult for her, the dissonance between her rigid Catholic background and her love for her children. What can be more terrifying than the thought that any of your children may not enter the Kingdom? What a difficult conundrum for any person to be faced with by your Church!

    Recently, another brother disclosed to my Mom that he and his wife of many years were divorcing. Years ago, this would have been terribly upsetting to her . . . we all know what a “no-no” divorce is in the Church. Instead, she responded without hesitation, “Remember earlier this summer when the Pope said those things about gay people and who is he to judge? Well, I’ve found great comfort in those words. And that is how I look at these things these days.” My brother and I were astounded by her peace-filled response . . . this is not how she would have responded earlier.

    If the words of Francis can help Mom sleep a little better, approach life with more peace, after a long, faithful journey . . . then I am all for the words. To my fellow progressives, I understand the sense of frustration and futility . . . absolutely. But even words can be significant. I remind myself that the act of speaking out is, indeed, action. Sister Jeannine Gramick has been speaking out for years even after “silenced.” The action of speaking can be significant . . . so I take the blessing that Francis has spoken as hopeful of future dialogue. Sure, it would be foolish to expect great changes in teachings any time soon. But the opening of genuine dialogue is so much more fundamental to human spirituality and engagement than the mere teachings. A setting of dialogue and engagement is where growth between people in spirit may happen. Francis has given indications that he is listening to the people. Let’s give it a chance and be hopeful of where the dialogue may go.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] I’ve said before, Pope Francis will not be the pope who makes the important changes that LGBT Catholics long for. […]

  2. […]  I think his assessment of Pope Francis’ comments on homosexuality is an accurate one.  As I’ve said before, I think that the pope’s greatest contributions to LGBT issues in the church will be indirect […]

  3. […] As we’ve noted before, the pope’s influence is not in making policy changes, but in setting the tone and establishing processes that will allow true change to percolate up from below.  Pope Francis, with his many positive statements and especially his call for consultation from the laity on matters of marriage and family, is already exerting this type of influence profoundly. […]

  4. […] and LGBT issues, he has opened the doors for new processes that can eventually bring about true change.   Pope Francis’ strategy seems to be one of respecting and trusting the laity of the […]

  5. […] interview, in which he also did uphold the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality.  I’ve noted before that it looks like Pope Francis’s road to change in the church won’t be a straight […]

  6. […] As we’ve noted before, Pope Francis may not be ready to make wholesale changes in church doctrine on LGBT issues, but he does seem intent on establishing reforms which can eventually lead to such needed changes. While sexuality is not discussed in this new document, there are many topics in it that can pave the way for the church hierarchy to renew itself in regard to these concerns.   I’ve excerpted a few of them below.  In the coming week, we hope to provide more analysis and commentary on this newly-released document as it becomes available. […]

  7. […] The Road to LGBT Change in the Catholic Church Won’t Be a Straight One ( […]

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